Scholar says bad policies at root of HIV problems

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 April, 2007, 12:00am

Beijing's HIV/Aids prevention strategy continues to be hindered by bad policies despite major improvements from the central government in increasing public awareness about the deadly disease and health care for infected patients, says an influential American scholar.

Bates Gill said the lack of local-level implementation of central government-mandated HIV/Aids policies and continued harassment of Chinese activists were the products of the Chinese political system and not mere hitches in policy implementation.

'Such problems are not technical issues that can be solved through spending more money ... these are policy issues,' said Mr Gill, the Freeman Chair for China Studies at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

He was speaking at a Tuesday forum on China's health and environmental challenges held at Washington's Woodrow Wilson Centre.

Mr Gill made his assessment after recently visiting the mainland where he met Chinese health officials and experts. He said government statistics showed the country had 650,000 HIV-positive patients in 2005, with 70,000 estimated new HIV infections in that year alone.

To counter this, Beijing has adopted an aggressive HIV/Aids policy, which has included President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao meeting infected patients in an attempt to fight the public stigma surrounding the disease.

Last year, the central government increased its disease-related funding to US$18 million from US$12.5 million in 2002, as well as enacting a ban on discrimination against people with HIV/Aids.

Officials have also established 320 methadone clinics throughout the country to prevent HIV infections among drug users, and have plans to increase these facilities to 1,500 by 2008.

Despite these efforts, Mr Gill described the results of such policies as mixed and as a 'glass half-full'. He said the government had only officially identified 184,000 of the country's total HIV-positive population since the end of last year, with at least 60 per cent of the disease carriers unaware of their status.

He also said ignorance and discrimination was rampant in mainland society, and there continued to be a lack of prevention facilities.

Mr Gill said another serious problem was that local-level officials refused to implement the government's HIV/Aids programmes, fearing such measures would expose their shortcomings, which would come back to haunt their political careers.

He believed such worries were the reason officials frequently harassed HIV/Aids activists, such as Gao Yaojie . In February, the 80-year doctor, based in Henan , was placed under house arrest by local officials in an attempt to prevent her from receiving a human rights award in Washington. It was only after an international outcry erupted over her situation that she was able to take the trip in March.

Losing ground

The number of people living with HIV in China in January 2006, according to the World Health Organisation: 650,000